Hurricane Katrina:

EPA's Current and Future Environmental Protection Efforts Could Be Enhanced by Addressing Issues and Challenges Faced on the Gulf Coast

GAO-07-651: Published: Jun 25, 2007. Publicly Released: Jun 25, 2007.

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In 2005, Hurricane Katrina's impact on the Gulf Coast included damage to the environment from chemical and hazardous materials releases. Also, the widespread demolition and renovation activities still under way in New Orleans may release asbestos fibers into the air, posing a potential additional health risk. This report, conducted at the Comptroller General's initiative, addresses (1) the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) actions to assess and mitigate Katrina's environmental impacts, (2) the extent to which EPA has assurance that public health is protected from asbestos inhalation risks in New Orleans, (3) the extent to which EPA's environmental health risk communications provided useful information to the public, and (4) challenges EPA faces in addressing environmental impacts.

Under challenging circumstances, EPA worked with federal and state partners to respond to chemical and oil spills, collect abandoned chemical containers, coordinate recycling of damaged appliances, and collect and recycle electronic waste. EPA also conducted air, water, sediment, and soil sampling; helped assess drinking water and wastewater infrastructures; and issued timely information to the public on a variety of environmental health risks. However, as cleanup continues, EPA's assurance that public health is protected from risks associated with inhalation of asbestos fibers is limited because the agency has not deployed air monitors in and around New Orleans neighborhoods where demolition and renovation activities are concentrated. While EPA took steps to monitor asbestos after the hurricane --for example, more than doubling the number of ambient (outdoor) air monitors and monitoring emissions at debris reduction sites--monitors were not placed in areas undergoing substantial demolition and renovation, such as the Ninth Ward. This is problematic because monitors effectively detect releases of asbestos from demolition activities only if they are located immediately adjacent to demolition sites. Further, many thousands of homes being demolished and renovated by or for individual homeowners are generally not subject to EPA's asbestos emissions standards aimed at limiting releases of fibers into the air. While EPA provided useful environmental health risk information to the public via flyers, public service announcements, and the EPA Web page, the communications were at times unclear and inconsistent on how to mitigate exposure to some contaminants, particularly asbestos and mold. Further, the usefulness of three key reports on EPA's environmental sampling in New Orleans--developed with, among others, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to address potential health risks from exposure to floodwaters, sediments, and air--was limited by a lack of timeliness and insufficient disclosures about EPA's sampling program. For example, EPA did not state until August 2006 that its December 2005 report--which said that the great majority of the data showed that adverse health effects would not be expected from exposure to sediments from previously flooded areas--applied to short-term visits, such as to view damage to homes. Mitigating several challenges EPA faces addressing Hurricane Katrina could better protect the environment in the future. First, EPA did not remove hazardous materials from national wildlife refuges in a timely manner as part of its response in part because disaster assistance funding generally is not used for debris cleanups on federal lands. Second, because states generally have authority over landfill decisions, EPA does not have an effective role in emergency debris disposal decisions that could cause pollution. Finally, lack of clarity in federal debris management plans and protocols precluded the timely and safe disposal of some appliances and electronic waste.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA's 1995 guide on planning for disposal of disaster debris acknowledges that disaster debris can overwhelm existing landfills (solid waste facilities) or force communities to use disposal options that otherwise would not be acceptable. However, the guide does not provide specific guidance on the selection of emergency landfill sites or practices that state agencies should consider when making special debris disposal accommodations following disasters. Because EPA's debris management role is limited under federal law and the National Response Plan, its guidance to states and localities on planning for disposal of disaster debris could be especially important in helping ensure that hazardous materials are disposed of in landfills with appropriate safeguards when disposal options that would not otherwise be acceptable are used for disaster debris, thereby preventing contaminants from migrating and causing air, water, and soil contamination. Having detailed guidance available from EPA to states on advance planning for potential emergency landfill sites and practices to consider when making special debris disposal accommodations following disasters might have helped Louisiana avoid some of the controversies and lawsuits it faced as result of its emergency debris management decisions in New Orleans. To better enable EPA and its partner agencies to minimize the environmental risks resulting from future disasters, we recommended that EPA provide more detailed guidance to state and local entities on managing debris disposal following disasters to better ensure protection of public health and the environment and prevent the creation of future Superfund sites. This guidance should address the selection of landfill sites for disaster debris, including advance selection of potential landfill sites, and practices to consider when making special accommodations for debris disposal in emergency situations. According to EPA, in March 2008 the agency issued a revised version of its "Planning for Disaster Debris" manual which discusses the components of a disaster debris management plan and is based on the experience of communities that encountered a natural disaster, including those from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. EPA reported that the manual includes more detailed guidance to local entities and states regarding effective practices, siting criteria, and the need for advance planning. Our review of the new manual found that it addresses issues such as identifying the types of debris and forecasting the amounts of debris that could occur from a natural disaster; creating an inventory of current capacity for managing the debris; preselecting temporary debris management sites that can be used for storing, sorting, and processing debris; and creating a debris removal strategy that recognizes that disaster debris that may pose an immediate threat to human health and the environment should be a first collection priority. The guide also states that environmental assessment monitoring may be needed before, during, and after a disaster if disaster debris is placed in previously closed debris management facilities or if new facilities are opened.

    Recommendation: To better enable EPA and its partner agencies to minimize the environmental risks resulting from future disasters, the EPA Administrator should provide more detailed guidance to state and local entities on managing debris disposal following disasters to better ensure protection of public health and the environment and prevent the creation of future Superfund sites. This guidance should address the selection of landfill sites for disaster debris, including advance selection of potential landfill sites, and practices to consider when making special accommodations for debris disposal in emergency situations.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In August 2011, EPA reported that its initiative to address this recommendation had been suspended to address other priorities.

    Recommendation: To better enable EPA and its partner agencies to minimize the environmental risks resulting from future disasters, the EPA Administrator should work with potentially affected federal land management agencies, the Coast Guard, DHS, and FEMA to determine what actions are needed to ensure that environmental contamination on federal lands, such as national wildlife refuges, can be expeditiously and efficiently addressed in future disasters. Potential actions include the development of protocols or memorandums of understanding or amendments to the Stafford Act if the agencies determine that amendments are needed to achieve the timely availability of such funding when responding to disasters involving federal lands.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA formalized its National Approach to Response Crisis Communications Plan as an EPA Order in January 2009. The plan establishes EPA's process for communicating environmental information to the public during a response to a nationally significant incident (such as a natural disaster) and for coordinating public information among various EPA field, region, and headquarters offices. Among other things, the plan states that environmental data must be disseminated to the public in an understandable, timely, accurate, and consistent manner and provides direction to the EPA Incident Command Public Information Officer regarding the release of information on public health and protection. According to EPA's Office of Emergency Management, the plan was tested in a national-level radiological exercise in April 2010 and also utilized in response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Also, in September 2009, EPA stated it provided access to the first version of a Crisis Communications Resources Guide to EPA Communications Directors, Regional Public Affairs Directors, and appropriate managers in the Emergency Response and Removal Program. This communications guide, which complements EPA's Crisis Communications Plan and is referenced in it, was also used in the previously mentioned radiological exercise. According to EPA's plan, the guide will be a source of consistent, pre-approved information for particular incidents including natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and wild fires. EPA's Office of Emergency Management stated it will be updated and improved as needed, and future plans for the communications guide include messages for specific stages of a response, as well as more information on a wider variety of emergency scenarios. According to EPA, other related efforts include a new methodology for communicating the results of environmental sampling using color codes to convey results. This methodology has been tested in an exercise and several actual events, including the BP response. EPA stated that this communication product is also being tracked as part of an Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response Community Engagement Initiative that will assist EPA in obtaining feedback on the new methodology so it can be improved and shared across the agency.

    Recommendation: To provide environmental health risk information to the public that is timely, complete, clear, and consistent about (1) the environmental contamination to which individuals may be exposed subsequent to disasters and (2) how individuals can best protect themselves, the EPA Administrator should develop clear and consistent generic information for the public regarding mitigating exposure to contaminants--such as asbestos, lead, and mold--likely to be present in many disaster situations and ensure that this information can be expeditiously communicated via all appropriate media, thereby providing the public with basic protective information at the same time that EPA is developing any additional event-specific health risk information that is needed.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2007, EPA released its initial National Approach to Response Crisis Communications Plan, which established EPA's process for releasing key environmental data and coordinating public information among the various levels of a response to a disaster incident. The plan identified the roles and responsibilities of EPA communications personnel and notes that the agency will ensure that messages are conveyed to the public quickly, accurately, and consistently. The plan also outlined steps the agency will follow to disseminate information to the public, including environmental data, such as soil, sediment, air, and water sampling and monitoring data. Among other things, EPA has developed an internal website, currently designed for use by public information officers within the agency to assist in creating public websites during disaster incidents. According to the Deputy Director of EPA's Office of Emergency Management, most of the information, which includes draft messages for the general public concerning specific types of disasters such an anthrax incident, will be pre-cleared within EPA and easy for the public to understand and use during an emergency. In January 2009, EPA updated this Crisis Communications Plan and formalized the plan as an EPA Order. EPA tested the plan in a national-level radiological exercise in April 2010 and used it in its response to the BP oil spill. Moreover, in September 2009, EPA provided access to the first version of a Crisis Communications Resources Guide (CCRG) to EPA Communications Directors, Regional Public Affairs Directors and appropriate managers in the Emergency Response and Removal Program. EPA plans to develop and incorporate into this guide messages for specific stages of a response as well as more information on a wider variety of emergency scenarios.

    Recommendation: To provide environmental health risk information to the public that is timely, complete, clear, and consistent about (1) the environmental contamination to which individuals may be exposed subsequent to disasters and (2) how individuals can best protect themselves, the EPA Administrator should develop protocols to ensure that the agency's communications following disasters are timely and sufficiently disclose all of the information that affected residents would need to understand the potential health risks they may face upon returning, including information on the scope and methodology for EPA's assessments of environmental health risks.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, EPA took steps to monitor asbestos emissions in New Orleans but did not place monitors in areas undergoing substantial demolition and renovation, thereby limiting its assurance that public health is protected from risks associated with inhalation of asbestos fibers. While EPA increased the number of ambient (outdoor) air monitors in the area from 5 to 12, monitors effectively detect releases of asbestos from demolition activities only if they are located immediately adjacent to the demolition sites. In addition, to facilitate and expedite demolition and rebuilding following Hurricane Katrina, EPA issued "no action assurance" letters stating that it would not enforce otherwise applicable requirements for inspection and removal of asbestos prior to demolition for residences that are subject to a government-issued demolition order based on the residence being (1) structurally unsound but not necessarily in danger of imminent collapse, (2) moved off its foundation, or (3) uninhabitable for other environmental reasons, such as flooding. To enhance EPA's ability to monitor and assess information on asbestos emissions resulting from the extensive demolition and renovation activities in New Orleans, we recommended that EPA develop and implement an asbestos monitoring plan that addresses the potential health effects of both (1) the non-enforcement of certain asbestos requirements covering government-ordered demolitions of residences and (2) the general exemption from EPA's asbestos work practice standards for demolition and renovation activities of residential buildings with four or fewer dwelling units when done at the initiative of individual homeowners. According to EPA Region 6 officials, EPA developed and implemented an additional asbestos monitoring plan in response to our recommendation. Specifically, in September 2007, EPA issued its Assessing Asbestos Emissions at Regulated Asbestos-Containing Material (RACM) Demolition Sites in Katrina/Rita Response Quality Assurance Project Plan to (1) evaluate the effectiveness of the demolition practices being employed in the New Orleans area, (2) assure the safety of existing and potential residents, (3) inform the public of the asbestos concentrations observed, and (4) explain the significance of the findings of the monitoring. The plan calls for monitoring at a minimum of 10 percent of demolitions of houses known to have or assumed to have regulated asbestos containing material. The plan states that monitoring could be eliminated if results are acceptable after data from 100 demolitions have been evaluated. EPA has monitored asbestos emissions at 300 of the 1,253 demolitions conducted under the scope of EPA's no action assurance letters in the New Orleans area between August 2007 and May 2008. EPA officials report that samples collected at these demolitions have not exceeded EPA's risk-based screening level for asbestos concentrations. Although not required by the plan, EPA plans to continue sampling at demolition sites as part of its FEMA-funded Katrina response activities through August 2008.

    Recommendation: To enhance EPA's ability to monitor and assess information on asbestos emissions resulting from the extensive demolition and renovation activities in New Orleans, the EPA Administrator should develop and implement an asbestos monitoring plan that addresses the potential health effects of both (1) the nonenforcement of certain asbestos requirements covering government-ordered demolitions of residences and (2) the general exemption from EPA's asbestos work practice standards for demolition and renovation activities of residential buildings with four or fewer dwelling units when done at the initiative of individual homeowners.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As recommended, EPA worked with the Army Corps of Engineers and clarified their respective roles and responsibilities related to the management of white goods and electronics. Their agreement is documented in the 2008 National Response Framework. Specifically, when states request federal disaster assistance under Emergency Services Function #3, the Corps leads the management of electronic wastes and Freon from white goods. If disaster assistance is requested only under Emergency Services Function #10, EPA leads the management of these wastes.

    Recommendation: To better enable EPA and its partner agencies to minimize the environmental risks resulting from future disasters, the EPA Administrator should work with the Army Corps of Engineers to clarify each agency's role in debris disposal and develop a memorandum of understanding or other agency protocol to allow the agencies to quickly manage and recycle white goods and electronic waste following future disasters.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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